At the next prenatal class—I was by now overdue by several days—the teacher led us to the second-floor birthing unit of Samitivej Hospital, the women lumbering, the men holding their hands somewhere in the vicinity of their wives’ lower backs in an attempt to hide whatever inadequacies they felt. Throughout the prenatal class, we were inadvertently reminded over and over that the main stage was all about mommy and baby. Dad was just a side show. Or a roadie.
The second-floor birthing room was a soft, dreamy mirage of childbirth-as-miracle, the kind of place Katie Holmes might silently and with nary a frown deliver her child. A large birthing pool dominated the room, and many women, myself included, expressed a desire to “give it a whirl” when the moment came. (As a scuba diver, I’d cut myself on coral, and I knew that the pain only hit once you were out of the water, so it made sense to me that a birthing pool would reduce the pain of labor.) There was also a 4-foot-long bed (no lying down during labor), a chair with the crotch area cut out of it, a mat, a floor-to-ceiling ladder, a rope, an exercise ball, a kitchenette with microwave and minifridge, an oil burner, a stereo/CD player, and dimmer switches on all the lights. I could have curled up right there and given birth.
I didn’t tell my husband, Paul, that I wasn’t planning to get an epidural. I didn’t want to look like a wimp if, midway through, I decided I just couldn’t do without it. With the exception of needles, which make the blood drain from his face, there is not a wimpy cell in his body. He spent 24 years in the commando forces, and to this day is the only human I know who can do all of the following: 1) get himself out of a minefield intact, 2) stabilize a sucking chest wound with a plastic bag, 3) build a stretcher with found objects, and 4) locate the femoral artery and staunch the spurting blood flow of both human and canine casualties alike, should such a tragedy strike. He can also navigate his way out of a desert or get himself out of quicksand.
I wanted to surprise him with my resilience, to show him how all those times that I’d screamed in terror while rock climbing or capsizing in one of several water crafts (a Hobie cat in Honduras, a kayak in the Mekong), I was merely shielding my inner ruffian. I had fantasies of him telling the story to friends over pints of Guinness: how I was a total hard ass who, for seven years of life with him, had been in hiding, emerging only at that crucial moment when our daughter first began to surface into the world.
In the previous class, our teacher had shown us a chart of the labor stages that went something like this: Stage 1, smiley. Stage 2, stoic. Stage 3, frowny. Stage 4, unexploded ordnance. I wasn’t worried about the first three stages, but the fourth … that was the killer. If you made it to the fourth stage without an epidural, you pretty much had no choice but to suck it up. I wondered if I’d make it all the way from smiley through stoic and march proudly into frowny only to find that I simply couldn’t take it, but it’d be too late. A few women suggested this as a possibility, but the teacher just smiled and nodded, assuring us that she was familiar with this dilemma while simultaneously failing to offer a smidgeon of comfort.
In truth, though, there was another question that haunted me much more. It was a question that began with pain but ended with love. And it so terrified me that I’d kept it to myself. I had not been particularly present during my pregnancy. I never played classical music for my unborn child; I didn’t rub my belly or talk to her. I was terrified for nine months straight, in part because the slobbery, sticky noisemakers my friends who’d procreated had produced held zero appeal to me. On rare occasions when I’d been called upon to acknowledge a friend’s child, it made me grumpy and mildly nauseous. Baby-sitting turned me downright hostile. So the only real manifestation of my pregnancy was a near total satisfaction of my cravings, which tended mostly toward bagels and cream cheese—not, truthfully, all that far removed from my average, nonpregnancy cravings.
But the question was this: After all those months of watching your body become less yours and more someone else’s, and then after all those hours of a pain that no one—no matter how great a writer—no one has ever been able to capture in words; after all the worry and anxiety and energy … after all of it, was love a guarantee? What if, I would think to myself late at night with Paul sleeping beside me and my own enormous body engulfed in the fires of heartburn, and mere days—or hours—away from the most profound change I would ever experience in my life, what if it’s all just too much? What if I cannot love her?
Having this thought when you are on home turf, just a short distance from close friends and family, is one thing. In the warm light of home, sitting with your best friend over cups of tea, you can hash out questions like these. You can voice your fears to someone other than your husband, who surely has fears of his own. You can watch your friends who have already had kids, see the way they touch their children, the way they look at them. That generally answers this question. Or at least keeps it at bay. But in a place where everyone is foreign, where you can’t do something as simple as read a road sign, and where children and babies are held in a cultural esteem akin to royalty, this question goes unanswered. And in the space of a question without answer, you began to hear how much a void can echo.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was so sure I would freak out and that in the absence of my closest friends or any family at all, this unanswered question would offer a cavity for hysteria and despair to settle into. I began to prepare Paul for this post-birth moment. I told him the stages of postpartum depression, from mild to severe. I explained the general symptoms and told him how I felt these symptoms might manifest themselves in me. I looked up counseling services in Bangkok and found one run by an American and a Frenchman. I told Paul not to wait to get help, to just make a call at the first sign that something was amiss. I was doing what I thought was the best thing to do: prepare.
And then it hit me. The wonderfully calm smiling teacher of my prenatal class at Samitivej had surely dealt with enough foreigners to know how to answer my question. As a Thai woman, she herself may never have experienced the profound dread I was experiencing, but surely this question had been posed to her. In most of Asia, children are cared for by immediate and extended family and are revered as gifts in a way that I’ve never seen in the United States. Teenage boys will coo at newborns, and shopgirls will ignore other customers so they can giggle at babies. Waitresses will carry your child around so that you can enjoy your meal, and taxi drivers will turn around at stoplights to admire the child in the backseat. Strangers stop you on the street to tell you your child is lovely at least once an hour, and many ask to take photos. Security guards in office buildings gaze adoringly at babies, and newborns are often a ticket into diplomatic lines at airports, thereby avoiding long customs queues. But even given this cultural reverence, surely she had some insight that would at least calm me down in these final hours.
After our tour of the well-outfitted birthing room, where we women discussed the best oil scents for a calm birth experience (I opted for lemongrass, a few others chose jasmine or ylang-ylang), we were offered a perfunctory look at the monitoring rooms, where we’d be taken if—God forbid—there was a problem and we needed to be connected to a fetal monitor, or if we had to have an epidural. Beyond the monitoring room was the operating theater, which we weren’t shown at all. This class didn’t cover problems; it only covered fantasy.
I waited until everyone else had left, and I made my way to the instructor. She was a small woman with cropped hair and a persistent, calming smile. She had assured each of us that she’d be just a phone call away, when it was our time. (I was skeptical of this. How could one small Thai woman help every single woman who came through her class? When my time did finally come, true to her word, she not only came up to visit, but when I needed help with breast-feeding, she spoke to me by phone even though she was on vacation.)
I told her I had a difficult question. I explained the scenario that kept replaying over and over in my mind. Like every other woman in the class, I had a peaceful vision of my childbirth experience, which included things like scented oils, a loving husband massaging my lower back, and a baby slipping gently into the world, coaxed by a soft-spoken doctor and his midwife assistant. But statistically, I told her, we couldn’t all enjoy this scenario. I was nearly 40; the numbers weren’t with me. So what happened, I asked, if you go through all that pain, the worst pain you can imagine, and you end up having some problems, and you must have an epidural, or maybe even a C-section—I think I may have had tears in my eyes; I can’t remember now—but after all that this little baby has put you through, what if you just don’t have it in you to love her?
Does that ever happen?
I noticed right away that her smile had vanished. She was no longer looking at me with that placid, calm gaze. Instead, her eyes were wild and had a hint of something between shock and annoyance sort of akin to Stage 4, unexploded ordnance on her chart. She clutched papers to her chest. And before I even heard her answer, I realized with deep dread that of all the places in which this question can be posed, Asia is not one of them.
“No,” she said. “That never happens.”